One of the advantages of study leave is that it gives you a lot of time to reflect on how you learn or approach problems. Perhaps this is facilitated by my subject matter – I am spending much of my time in the first couple of months of my study leave researching and reading about how my students learn, and the philosophy and theoretical foundations of learning. However, I think the openness of time when you are on study leave also tends towards a natural inclination to examine your own processes and procedures.
When not on study leave, my time is dictated by my calendar – meeting after meeting, then a deadline for an article or contract deliverable, mixed with lecture preparation, analysis of assessment results, discussions with students, etc etc etc. The point, thought, is that it is heavily structured. I don’t have to think about what I have to do next, because my calendar will tell me. Study leave presents the opposite. Of course, I still have deadlines – a contract demonstrator in June, paper deadlines in April and September – but these are very simple and far between.
I have discovered that I need more structure than that. Hardly surprising really. I guess one of the complicating factors is that I am still working on multiple projects – individual papers that need to be completed and reviewed, research contracts etc, mixed in with the need to fit in time to explore and discover new projects and ideas. This latter aspect is I guess what is intrinsically different about study leave – it is not just time to complete research you are already undertaking – it should be time to explore and to discover and initiate new projects that will continue for the next three years after your study leave is gone.
So my time becomes allocated in blocks of a day, as in today I will read about “how do you assess whether collaborative activities are building collaborative skills” or “today I will review Craig’s paper”. Or, as in today, “today I will read Bligh’s What’s the Use of Lectures?”. I am doing this from the comfort of the library in RP. Upstairs some one is playing the piano. They did this yesterday too – just practising, some of the same songs, and sometimes just messing around, but playing for hours. I am very much enjoying this, and it reminds me of how much I like listening to music when I read, something that I had forgotten amidst the mass of meetings.
I need to take notes – I can’t just read. The act of writing summaries, and paraphrasing is crucial for me to retain engagement in my reading. I also need to pause every couple of days and think about how everything fits in together, to critique and analyse, to compare, to reflect upon how what I have discovered fits with where I thought my project was going, or whether it is opening up new avenues of discovery – and whether these avenues should be explored or not. And I need to write. I need to write paper plans, project plans, anything that helps me tell the story as I currently see it, and to help sort through the logical arguments that I am constructing in my head.
I feel very much like a student again – these are the same practices that I developed while I was an undergraduate (somewhat) and a postgraduate (mostly). But somehow I had got out of the habit of these – or at least, I did not apply them consistently. I think sometimes as an academic it is necessary to take a step backwards – most often we are busy running our research groups, with our research assistants and PhD students undertaking much of the work while we scurry from meeting to lecture and back again – and to take some time to remember how to do core, fundamental research in our disciplines. This is what takes study leave, for me, from something which is a luxury that some academics can have, to something that we all need to do, regularly.
I don’t just mean that it helps build rapport with our research students. Yes, I believe that it is certainly the case that reminding ourselves of the joy and work involved in undertaking basic research will be beneficial in our mentoring of postgraduate students. But – I think it is more than that – reflecting on our own problem solving and critical analysis processes and our individual approaches to learning, with our own quirks and inconsistencies, helps us articulate the problem solving process itself; something which our undergraduate students are only just learning, and adapting to their own contexts. How to learn is the key to ongoing education, although our focus, and that of our students, is often on the discipline content that they have learnt. Helping ourselves, and our students understand and develop better approaches to solving problems and finding and integrating new knowledge is something we too often leave implicit.
This reminds me of a paper that I read recently by Chinn and Martin, where they describe an approach to developing problem solving skills in undergraduate. They refer to work by Triesman that identifies that specific workshops or tutorials on developing problem solving skills don’t appear to work, as in, they don’t appear to enhance problem solving skills as evidenced by improved student performance. Corman backs this up – knowledge of how problems are solved makes no difference to the number of problems that a student can solve, but practice in doing so, combined with knowledge, does.
Chinn and Martin adopt a workshop-based approach, during which students are exposed to a simple problem solving approach (based on Polya’s work), they are then asked to collaboratively solve problems, and then document their problem solving process. This final step is the key here to engaging students in their analysis and improvement of their processes. The result is an anthology of problem solving processes, written by the students and developed throughout the course, and used to encourage discussion around, and direct attention to, the problem solving process itself.
(Chinn and Martin, Collaborative, Problem-Based Learning in Computer Science, JCSC 21(1):239-245, October 2005.)
(Corman, The effect of varying amounts and kinds of information as guidance in problem solving. Psychological Monographs, 71(2), 1957.)